Content in this entry will be really subjective, reflecting mostly on my own interests and desires from roleplaying games, but I think it also reflects the sorts of things that other players, the ones who are really interested in roleplaying, seek in a “good game.”
Roleplaying gives us the opportunity to experiment with a fictional set of tools in a fictional environment. It’s the ultimate puzzle game. Who are you, and what do you want? When confronted with a circumstance, how do you respond?
When we sit at the game table, we usually have between two and six other players to respond to — and one of them is usually guiding the experience by creating and/or adjudicating scenarios in which we “play” our respective characters. A role can be anything, anything really, and most people play some distillation of themselves.
Every character I create and play is some variant of myself. I draw on my own experiences, my own thoughts and imagination, my own senses and perceptions, and my own beliefs — with a great deal of simplification and often “flanderization.”
This isn’t because I’m self-obsessed or anything (though you could certainly look at it that way) but usually because I have an interesting idea that I want to experiment with, to see if it’s the sort of thing that could exist at the “core” of someone’s personality.
Several of my cleric characters (and at least one wizard) were experiments with patience, charity, forgiveness, and pacifism among other things. My dragonborn warlord, The Manticore, was inspired by frustration and pragmatic dogmatism.
But even if you can create an well-rounded character, how do you establish a robust setting in which to explore them? In a tabletop roleplaying game, you have the other players, and a computer can scarcely keep up with a human roleplayer.
One environmental aspect that seems to aid a player in exploring their character is “surprise.” As in, “what do you do when you’re suddenly confronted with X.” Dice, cards, and other random elements are used in tabletop gaming for this purpose all though too much randomness can quickly become an incoherent mess.
Randomness can lend a certain something to the game though, as long as the randomness follows a particular sort of theme. Arkham Horror almost pulls this off, but Elder Sign does it much better. You have a clear Lovecraft theme in AH, but ES puts everything in the “museum exhibit” context. The Curator is a bad, bad man.
Why do I say that? Well, there isn’t anything significant about The Curator in and of itself as an adventure card, except that it always seems to turn up at the worst possible time, and our players can very rarely defeat it on the first try. We’ve constructed a microcosm of mythology around a random event in the game.
A single-player roleplaying game would have to engender this sort of thing. Many events could be random, yet, but they’d have to be random within a set theme, and some of the events would have to stand out in some appreciable way.